By Jeremy Herb
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is ending the military’s ban on women serving in combat.
The move could open up more than 230,000 jobs that had been previously closed to women by overturning a 1994 ban on female servicemembers in small combat units.
Panetta’s decision gives the military services until 2016 to request special exceptions for positions they think should remain closed to women, according to the Associated Press, which first reported the move.
The services will now develop plans to implement the policy change, which was recommend by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the service chiefs will report back to Panetta — or potentially his successor — in May.
The announcement is a major policy move for Panetta near the end of his tenure as Defense secretary.
Panetta had previously relaxed the rules on women serving with combat units last year, opening up about 14,000 new positions to women by allowing them to formally serve in combat battalions.
At the time, Pentagon officials said they had to study the issue of women in combat further before opening up additional positions.
The end of gender restrictions on combat has some outside implications, including the requirement that all adult males register for the Selective Service in case a draft is reinstated.
The law that restricted women in ground combat units requires the Pentagon to provide Congress with a 30-day-notification and a report that among other things would provide “a detailed analysis of legal implication of the proposed change with respect to the constitutionality of the application of the Military Selective Service Act to males only.”
Those issues were of little concern to lawmakers Wednesday, however, as statements flooded in mostly praising the move.
“This is a proud day for our country and the step we need to formally recognize the brave women who are already fighting and dying for our country shoulder-to-shoulder with their brothers in uniform on the frontlines,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he supported the move to end the ban on women in combat because "it reflects the reality of 21st century military operations,” Levin said.
House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said in a statement that he welcomed the review from the services.
"After a decade of critical military service in hostile environments, women have demonstrated a wide range of capabilities in combat operations and we welcome this review,” McKeon said.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said she was "pleased" by Panetta's decision, saying that the announcement "reflects the increasing role that female service members play in securing our country."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement that he supported Panetta's decision to lift the ban, although he added it was "critical" the same physical standards are maintained — one of the issues that will need to be addressed by the services.
"As this new rule is implemented, it is critical that we maintain the same high standards that have made the American military the most feared and admired fighting force in the world — particularly the rigorous physical standards for our elite special forces units," McCain said.
Some Republicans, such as 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum, have questioned whether ending the ban is the right move.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the new top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, blasted the Pentagon for leaking the news. He said it was “unacceptable” the plans were leaked before Congress was briefed.
Inhofe was also skeptical about how many positions would be open to women, though he also noted that — as a former flight instructor — gender had no impact on flight skills.
“I do not believe this will be a broad opening of combat roles for women, because as the 2012 report [on women in combat] indicated, there are ‘serious practical barriers which must be resolved so that the department can maximize the safety and privacy of all military members while maintaining military readiness,’” Inhofe said in a statement.
Many lawmakers noted Wednesday that women frequently served with combat units in a de facto manner during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as their roles and the nature of the conflicts moved them to the front lines.
“It’s important to remember that in recent wars that lacked any true front lines, thousands of women already spent their days in combat situations serving side-by-side with their fellow male servicemembers,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “This is an historic step for equality and for recognizing the role women have, and will continue to play, in the defense of our nation.”
The Pentagon’s decision was a personal one for two freshmen House members, Reps. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who are the first female combat veterans to serve in Congress.
Gabbard called the move “an overdue, yet welcome change.”
“I have had the honor of serving with incredibly talented female soldiers who, if given the opportunity, would serve as great assets in our ground combat units,” she said in a statement.
Duckworth, who lost both of her legs in a helicopter crash in Iraq, compared ending the ban on women in combat to prior race-based restrictions.
“There has always been some level of opposition to increasing the diversity in our military whether it has been minorities or women,” Duckworth said in a statement. “It is clear that the inclusion of groups like African Americans and Asians has made our military stronger. As a combat Veteran I know the inclusion of women in combat roles will make America safer and provide inspiration to women throughout our country.”
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), who has been one of the most vocal critics of the ban, said she was happy about the move, and looked forward to getting more details at a congressional briefing Thursday.
“I have been a firm believer in removing the archaic combat exclusion policy for many years," Sanchez said.
This story was last updated at 6:10 p.m.